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Soaring to new heights

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Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002 10:00 pm

He saw it at Cal Expo this year, a quirky machine sort of like a souped-up lawn mower.

Except this lawn mower, somehow, could fly.

Lee Patterson, a semi-retired Lodi police officer, is deathly afraid of flying.

He tried flying commercial a few times and wound up white-knuckled and queasy. He finally just gave it up.

When he and a group of pals go to Arizona for a golfing vacation each year, they fly. He drives.

Yet there was something about the contraption at Cal Expo that he found, well, comforting.

Richard Hanner

Now, he has helicopter pilots slow down and stare at Patterson as he soars with them in his unconventional flying machine.

At a field northeast of Lodi, the wind has died down just enough.

Neighbors on adjoining small ranches stop their chores to watch the spectacle.

Patterson, strapped in, helmet on, sits in the machine. It is a scene of odd intensity, a bit like Christopher Lloyd ready to roar back to the future in his DeLorean.

Suddenly, the engine revs thunderously and Patterson starts to rumble across the field. Behind him, the canopy of a parachute blossoms and starts to rise.

The machine bumps its way perhaps 150 feet, its gossamer shroud going higher and higher.

Then, in what seems just seconds, Patterson and his vehicle are up.

After the seeing the display at Cal Expo, both Patterson and his girlfriend, Maria, were intrigued enough to drive to Yuba City to take a closer look at the contraption.

The machines are called, simply, powered parachutes. They are aptly named. Powered carts with engines that pull parachutes, rise into the air, and allow the driver and a passenger to dawdle around at up to 12,500 feet.

They have small but heavy-duty engines that deliver around 65 horsepower and drive a propeller. Sort of like the swamp boats you see in Louisiana and Florida. Most float along at 25 or 30 miles per hour and can stay aloft for three hours.

They are novel and basic enough that the Federal Aviation Administration has no licensing requirements to pilot one, though dealers require purchasers to go through a training regimen. (Jerry Snyder, a spokesman for the FAA in Los Angeles, said regional field offices may apply federal rules regarding either parachuting or ultralight operations to powered parachutes; it is left up to the individual region's office. He added that the FAA has no national requirements and has no safety studies or statistics regarding powered parachutes that he is aware of.)

Patterson agreed to go up with the fellow in Yuba City, an Infinity powered parachute dealer named Brian Henry.

Retired Lodi police Officer Lee Patterson flies his motor-powered parachute. (Jerry R. Tyson/News-Sentinel)

Patterson loved the vast, unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. He loved the sense of movement.

It was, in a word, thrilling.

And, oddly, there were no white knuckles, no churning in the pit of the stomach.

No fear.

It was the simplicity of the powered parachute that attracted Patterson. And it seemed so safe. Even if the engine dies, you don't drop like a rock, Patterson thought. After all, you have the parachute.

"I figure the only guys who get hurt flying these are the guys who mess around in them. Guys who fly too low and try to go under power lines or whatever," Patterson said. "Otherwise, they are pretty safe."

Patterson decided to plunk down the $15,000 price and buy one. He traveled to Yuba City for his instruction. Having spent years on a motorcycle as an officer, Patterson seemed a natural on the powered parachute, mastering the nuances of balance and speed and control.

Today, he may be the only powered parachutist in the area. His flights are novel enough to cause people to pull their cars over, turn off the engines, get out and gawk.

The first time Patterson roared up from the field outside of Lodi, the horses in a nearby pasture were a bit spooked.

Since then, Patterson has found a different flight path. Plus the horses seem to have grown somewhat accustomed to the commotion.

On this evening, as the sun sets, the horses' tails don't even twitch as Patterson rises toward a lattice of distant clouds.

The machine weighs about 400 pounds. Because it is relatively light, and is suspended by a parachute, it can be jostled by the wind. So Patterson typically flies early in the morning or around dusk, when the winds have died down.

He has explored much of the area around Lodi and Herald by air.

Once, he spied the big dormant towers of the idled Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. He thought it would be fun to fly over them and peer down. Just to see what he could see.

He called the FAA to find out if he could fly that close to the towers. The FAA official said he didn't know, but advised that, "I wouldn't do it if I were you."

Patterson gave up his idea of getting a bird's eye view of the towers.

After 20 minutes or so, Patterson has seen the sights, enjoyed the thrill.

He drops lower, lower, lower. The tires of the machine lightly strike the grass of the field. A bit of dust flies, and the machine is still. The parachute lies crumpled in the field, like a mammoth and colorful used Kleenex.

For the guy who hated to fly, it's a perfect landing.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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